12 Years a Slave – Articles of Interest

Unless you have been out-of-touch since Sunday, you have heard the news that 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. If you read my thoughts on the movie when it came out that should come as no surprise. It is probably the best Hollywood movie ever dealing with slavery, essentially because it told Solomon Northup’s story largely straight (unlike Django Unchained‘s silly revenge fantasy the year before).  Lupita Nyong’o won a well-deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, although Chiwetal Ejiofor (Lead Actor) and Michael Fassbender (Supporting Actor) didn’t win in their categories. But the film also won for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Not surprisingly, a flurry of articles have appeared on the film since Sunday to feed the public’s renewed interest in 12 Years A Slave since its Oscar triumph. As a public service to the Civil War Emancipation readership, here is annotated list of some of the most worthwhile of them.

Manisha Sinha, “The untold history beneath ’12 Years,” New York Daily News [Sinha discusses how Northup’s case was just one of many kidnappings of northern free blacks into southern slavery before the Civil War.]

Peter Peveto, “Historian Mentioned at Oscars for Work,” The Advocate [Discusses the role of Louisiana historian, Sue Eakin, who back in the 1960s verified the basic veracity of Northup’s account in historical records.

Joseph Stromberg, “How the New York Times covered ’12 Years a Slave’s’ Solomon Northup in 1853,” Salon [Discusses the New York Times coverage of Northup’s case in the wake of his rescue from slavery.]

John Horn, “Oscars: ’12 Years a Slave’ puts spotlight on Hollywood’s approach to race,” Los Angeles Times [Story on the film winning the Best Picture Oscar in the larger context of Hollywood and race.]

If there is a particularly good story released on the film since it won the Best Picture Oscar missing, please let me know so I can add it to this list.

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Braving Alligator Infested Waters to be Free

It is not unusual to encounter dramatic tales of how slaves finally became free. They were a staple of abolitionist slave narratives before the Civil War. To escape slavery was to become a fugitive from the law, facing the full resources of the state devoted to their capture, and often hunted by experienced and ruthless private slave catchers and their vicious bloodhounds. These stories continued during the war, where the opportunities to gain freedom increased, but often so did the danger.

One such harrowing tale of an escape from slavery during the Civil War came in February 1864, in the testimony of a black Louisiana soldier, Octave Johnson, to the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission. This body was created by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton in 1863, and asked to investigate the condition of slaves freed in the territory subject to the Emancipation Proclamation, and their prospects to support and defend themselves. Johnson had a particularly poignant story, related to the commission 150 years ago this month, involving maroonage and braving alligator infested waters to escape slave catchers’ bloodhounds. His testimony read:

Deposition of Octave Johnson, Corporal Co. C, 15th Regt. Corps d’Afrique.

I was born in New Orleans; I am 23 years of age;  I was raised by Arthur Thiboux of New Orleans;  I am by trade a cooper;  I was treated pretty well at home;  in 1855 master sold my mother, and in 1861 he sold me to S. Contrell of St. James Parish for $2,400;  here I worked by task at my trade;  one morning the bell was rung for us to go to work so early that I could not see, and I lay still, because I was working by task;  for this the overseer was going to have me whipped, and I ran away to the woods, where I remained for a year and a half;  I had to steal my food; took turkeys, chickens and pigs;  before I left our number had increased to thirty, of whom ten were women;  we were four miles in the rear of the plantation house;  sometimes we would rope beef cattle and drag them out to our hiding place;  we obtained matches from our friends on the plantation;  we slept on logs and burned cypress leaves to make a smoke and keep away mosquitoes;  Eugene Jardeau, master of hounds, hunted for us for three months;  often those at work would betray those in the swamp, for fear of being implicated in their escape;  we furnished meat to our fellow-servants in the field, who would return corn meal;  one day twenty hounds came after me;  I called the party to my assistance and we killed eight of the bloodhounds;  then we all jumped into Bayou Faupron; the dogs followed us and the alligators caught six of them; “the alligators preferred dog flesh to personal flesh;”  we escaped and came to Camp Parapet, where I was first employed in the Commissary’s office, then as a servant to Col. Hanks;  then I joined his regiment.

Source: http://www.freedmen.umd.edu/OJohnson.html

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Black Confederates: Patrick Cleburne’s Radical Proposal

This blog normally stays away from the bogus controversy over whether armed black soldiers existed in the Confederate Army in significant numbers unless it has something relevant and timely to contribute. There are plenty of other good Civil War bloggers that more regularly debunk this notion as part of their blog’s mission and enthusiastically bedevil the so-called Southern heritage community for all its faults, historical and otherwise. Frankly, to pay too much attention to the neo-Confederates and their fantasy of large numbers of black soldiers in the southern army during the Civil War, is inadvertently to give this ridiculous notion credibility it does not deserve. Civil War Emancipation works to remember how the slaves became free in the Civil War without wallowing in the black Confederate issue, unless there is a compelling reason.


Patrick R. Cleburne, Major General, Army of Tennessee, CSA

What happened 150 years ago today well-qualifies as compelling. On January 2, 1864, Major General Patrick R. Cleburne and twelve other Confederate officers made a proposal to Joseph Johnston, commander of the Army of Tennessee, to enlist African Americans as soldiers in the rebel army.

It is hard for modern audiences to appreciate fully just how radical an idea Cleburne’s proposal was among the Confederates in the first days of 1864. Their ideology and their national identity was based on a belief in the racial inferiority of African Americans. Indeed, white Southerners had seceded from the Union because they believed that their slaves, without the restraints of the peculiar institution, would become nasty, violent brutes, intent on the mass slaughter of their former owners and other whites in an orgy of violence akin to Nat Turner’s Rebellion or the Haitian Revolution. So when Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans indicated their determination to stop the further spread of slavery, something most Americans believed was tantamount to putting the peculiar institution on the path to its eventual demise, and realizing politically they could no longer thwart slavery’s opponents in the national government, many white Southerners decided secession was the only course that would not only to preserve their prosperity, but also their very lives.

Indeed, when the Union Army began recruiting black soldiers in 1862 and then in earnest in 1863, many white Southerners sincerely believed their northern enemies were trying to foment a mass slave revolt like John Brown had tried to do in 1859. As an unnamed commentator wrote the New York Times in August 1862:

The danger feared by our correspondent is, of all others, least likely to happen. It is not simply because the South has not the arms for the purpose, but because the negroes cannot be trusted with arms. To take the course apprehended would be to inaugurate a servile war far more terrible than the civil one now raging; a war that would leave the women and children of the South at the mercy of the slaves; and in every way intensify the evils from which such arming is designed to save a ruined people. The slaveholders well understand against whom the blacks will use any muskets they can lay hands on. They also quite thoroughly understand the sympathy with which the negroes universally regard the progress and results of the Northern warfare. In the presence of these facts, nothing is less to be feared than the arming of the slaves.

So with the above mentality, for the Confederates to recruit slaves as soldiers into their army would have struck most white Southerners as utterly absurd. Of course, a few persons in the South had advocated the idea of black Confederate soldiers from the earliest days of the war. For an example, the May 10, 2011 edition of Civil War Emancipation discussed the May 4, 1861 proposal of John J. Cheatham, a private citizen in Athens, Georgia, to the Confederate Secretary of War. Cheatham believed that if African Americans were mixed in with whites, about ten to twenty black men to a company, they would be controllable and under the influence of their white comrades become a battlefield asset to the Confederate cause.

Patrick R. Cleburne’s argument was similar to John J. Cheatham, but also more expansive and intricate. Cleburne foresaw what would be the key weakness of the Confederate Army in 1864. With a smaller population than the North and numbers degraded by three years of war, the rebels were at a severe manpower disadvantage compared to their northern foe, something that Ulysses S. Grant, now overall commander of the Union Army, would try to exploit with multiple large campaigns to overwhelm the Confederacy’s ability to respond.

Patrick Cleburne believed that black soldiers, if recruitment began promptly, would solve the Confederate Army’s manpower problem for 1864. But to make the recruitment effort work, he believed it would not only require freeing whatever black men enlisted, but also enacting a general slave emancipation in the Confederacy. Cleburne believed that freeing the slaves would have a number of benefits. To begin with, it would undermine the diplomatic value of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation by removing a critical obstacle to foreign recognition of the Confederacy–European disgust with their practice of slavery. But there would be more benefits. Cleburne stated in his proposal:

The measure will at one blow strip the enemy of foreign sympathy and assistance, and transfer them to the South; it will dry up two of his three sources of recruiting; it will take from his negro army the only motive it could have to fight against the South, and will probably cause much of it to desert over to us; it will deprive his cause of the powerful stimulus of fanaticism, and will enable him to see the rock on which his so called friends are now piloting him. The immediate effect of the emancipation and enrollment of negroes on the military strength of the South would be: To enable us to have armies numerically superior to those of the North, and a reserve of any size we might think necessary; to enable us to take the offensive, move forward, and forage on the enemy. It would open to us in prospective another and almost untouched source of supply, and furnish us with the means of preventing temporary disaster, and carrying on a protracted struggle. It would instantly remove all the vulnerability, embarrassment, and inherent weakness which result from slavery. The approach of the enemy would no longer find every household surrounded by spies; the fear that sealed the master’s lips and the avarice that has, in so many cases, tempted him practically to desert us would alike be removed. There would be no recruits awaiting the enemy with open arms, no complete history of every neighborhood with ready guides, no fear of insurrection in the rear, or anxieties for the fate of loved ones when our armies moved forward. The chronic irritation of hope deferred would be joyfully ended with the negro, and the sympathies of his whole race would be due to his native South. It would restore confidence in an early termination of the war with all its inspiring consequences, and even if contrary to all expectations the enemy should succeed in overrunning the South, instead of finding a cheap, ready-made means of holding it down, he would find a common hatred and thirst for vengeance, which would break into acts at every favorable opportunity, would prevent him from settling on our lands, and render the South a very unprofitable conquest. It would remove forever all selfish taint from our cause and place independence above every question of property. The very magnitude of the sacrifice itself, such as no nation has ever voluntarily made before, would appal our enemies, destroy his spirit and his finances, and fill our hearts with a pride and singleness of purpose which would clothe us with new strength in battle.

To drive the point home, Patrick R. Cleburne, also drew upon history, writing:

Will the slaves fight? The helots of Sparta stood their masters good stead in battle. In the great sea fight of Lepanto where the Christians checked forever the spread of Mohammedanism over Europe, the galley slaves of portions of the fleet were promised freedom, and called on to fight at a critical moment of the battle. They fought well, and civilization owes much to those brave galley slaves. The negro slaves of Saint Domingo, fighting for freedom, defeated their white masters and the French troops sent against them. The negro slaves of Jamaica revolted, and under the name of Maroons held the mountains against their masters for 150 years; and the experience of this war has been so far that half-trained negroes have fought as bravely as many other half-trained Yankees. If, contrary to the training of a lifetime, they can be made to face and fight bravely against their former masters, how much more probable is it that with the allurement of a higher reward, and led by those masters, they would submit to discipline and face dangers.

It was an eloquent proposal and certainly one given its length, thoughtfulness and the obvious historical research had not been put together in haste. Plus, it must have taken some time for Cleburne to find twelve other officers to sign such a radical document. The rebels were fighting for independence in essence to keep slavery. Now, Patrick Cleburne was telling them to improve their chances of achieving independence, the Confederates should give up the very institution they were fighting to keep and arm the slaves who they were intent on keeping in bondage precisely because they feared their violence should they become free.

The Irish-born Cleburne, who had arrived in America in the mid-1840s and never owned slaves, for all his love of the people of the South, obviously had never fully appreciated the fear, racism, and greed of white Southerners that underlay their commitment to the peculiar institution. Thinking in purely military and geo-political terms his proposal made a great deal of sense. But in the cultural, social, and political terms of the Confederacy it was anathema. His brother officers in the Army of Tennessee, out of their great respect for him as a successful military commander, heard him out on his proposal on the evening of January 2, 1864, before Joseph E. Johnston politely but firmly rejected it and refused to forward Cleburne’s proposal to Richmond. Cleburne for his part, calmly accepted the rejection and dropped the idea, but another Major General in the Army of Tennessee, William H.T. Walker, breaking the chain of command, forwarded on his own initiative Cleburne’s proposal to Jefferson Davis, who similarly rejected it, and counseled Walker and Johnston to keep the controversial document secret as it would cause great trouble if it became public.

It would not be until the last weeks of the Confederacy that a form of Cleburne’s idea would be revived as the desperate rebel leadership was finally ready to endanger the slave system to forestall total defeat. The Confederate Congress approved a plan to recruit black soldiers into their army in March 1865, and trade them freedom for their service (although it foresaw no general emancipation as Cleburne wanted) but it was too little too late, and no black units created under this law ever saw action before the final collapse of Confederate forces defending Richmond the following month. Patrick Cleburne himself did not live to see his idea of black Confederate soldiers finally accepted as he died at the Battle of Franklin in late November 1864.

In any case, if there is any historical significance to Cleburne’s proposal of January 2, 1864 to arm the slaves for the Confederacy, it is, first, to further confirm that the rebels, for all their denials, were fighting to keep slavery. While certainly soldiers like Patrick Cleburne were devoted to the idea of Confederate nationhood in its own right, the top rebel leadership could not countenance embracing emancipation merely to give their army a better chance at success in 1864. Because unlike Cleburne, they knew not only that many slaveholders would not give up their property voluntarily under any circumstances, but also that with a lifetime of oppression behind them ending slavery would likely not suddenly convert African Americans to the Confederate cause, and they feared if given arms would promptly turn them on white Southerners in an orgy of barbaric vengeance.

Second, if tens or even hundreds of thousands of African Americans fought for the Confederacy, as contemporary neo-Confederates have asserted, why did Major General Patrick Cleburne make his January 1864 proposal to recruit units that already supposedly existed? Why did his proposal fall flat with the commanding general of the Army of Tennessee and the Confederate political leadership in Richmond? Why was Cleburne’s idea resurrected in modified form in the dying days of the Confederacy as the Davis, Lee, and other rebel leaders tried to forestall the looming collapse of the Confederacy? Hence, while there is much evidence to debunk the legend of large-scale black service as Confederate soldiers, one of the most powerful pieces is Patrick R. Cleburne’s proposal in early 1864. Again, why propose what already supposedly existed unless it really didn’t exist?

Sources: 1) http://www.nytimes.com/1862/08/11/news/will-the-south-arm-its-slaves.html; 2) https://cwemancipation.wordpress.com/2011/05/10/a-proposal-for-black-confederate-soldiers-may-1861/; 3) http://www.civilwarhome.com/cleburneproposal.htm

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“Oh I wish you had staid with me”: December 1863


Interracial worship service, Port Royal, S.C.  Source: The London Illustrated News, 5 December 1863

December 1863 was a busy month in the history of emancipation in the American Civil War. On December 8, President Abraham Lincoln issued the first salvo in the debate over how Reconstruction should proceed in the South following the final Union victory that most people in the North believed at the end of 1863, after a series of major battlefield successes that year, was now only a matter of time. Formally called the
Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction,” but more commonly known as the “10 Percent Plan,” it got the latter name because it envisioned a generous and lenient peace in which all but a specified group of high-ranking rebels would be automatically eligible for amnesty and a seceded state could resume a full and equal place in the Union, if only 10 percent of 1860 voters swore an oath of future loyalty to the United States. The proclamation would prove controversial and lead the Radical Republicans in 1864 to push through Congress an alternative, the Wade-Davis bill, which proposed to deal with the Confederate South much more harshly (a story for another time).

One of the reasons the Radical Republicans disliked Lincoln’s 10 Percent Plan was it made no provisions for the former slaves beyond indicating that slave property would not be restored to ex-Confederates taking the oath. Essentially, it set aside the question of the future status of the ex-slaves beyond making clear they would not be returned to bondage, even if their former owners resumed their loyalty to the United States.

But if the truth be told, even with the Radicals their priority in December 1863 was less the future of the former slaves and more guaranteeing they remained free, as well as liberating the millions that were still effectively slaves at the end of 1863, even if the Emancipation Proclamation had freed most of them formally at the start of the year. There also were slaves in the loyal slave states and in enclaves of the Union-occupied South not covered by the proclamation, and the nagging worry that the hodgepodge of steps taken to free slaves during the war would at some point successfully be challenged in the courts (not an idle worry given the conservative character of the American judiciary at the time).

To deal with these concerns and to end slavery for good throughout the United States, on December 14, 1863, James Ashley of Ohio introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The amendment moved slowly through Congress, in part because of resistance from Democrats, and in part because some Radicals wanted the amendment not only to free the slaves, but also to declare their equality before the law. Although the amendment ultimately would be passed and ratified without the equality provision, the desire of some Radicals for it would be addressed later with the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and ultimately the 14th and 15th Amendments.

On December 20, Abraham Lincoln affirmed his dedication to end slavery no matter what by issuing a statement that simply said, “I shall not attempt to retract or modify the emancipation proclamation; nor shall I return to slavery any person who is free by the terms of that proclamation, or by any of the acts of Congress.” Clearly, Lincoln was throwing down the gauntlet, letting anyone who cared, North or South, know that there would be no backsliding on freedom for the slaves. His subsequent lobbying for the 13th Amendment in Congress clearly demonstrated he was in earnest in making the statement.

Yet despite the progress to emancipation in December 1863, it should never be forgotten that statements and legislative initiatives of political elites ultimately affected the lives of real people in profound ways. People that at the end of 1863 were in an awkward and uncertain condition, with the institution of slavery crumbling around them, but not yet entirely free of its influence. For example, 1863 had seen the first widespread recruiting of African Americans into the Union Army. While black men that enlisted effectively escaped the clutches of slavery, they often left behind loved ones on plantations where their departure was resented and their families faced retaliation from angry slaveholders.

An example of this phenomenon is documented in a letter dated 150 years ago today. Although correspondence between slaves is rare, it is not unheard of, and sometimes got preserved when it came into the hands of bureaucratic organizations like the Union Army. Such was the case, when on December 30, 1863, a slave woman, Martha Glover, wrote to her husband, Richard Glover, from Mexico, Missouri. Richard had joined the Union Army and Martha wrote him to complain of mistreatment in his absence. Presumably, he passed on the letter to his superiors in the hope they could intervene on his family’s behalf. Whether the letter had any effect in that regard is unknown, but it was preserved in the army’s papers and eventually made its way to the National Archives, where it was discovered and published by the Freedmen and Southern Society Project at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Martha Glover wrote 150 years ago:

My Dear Husband   I have received your last kind letter a few days ago and was much pleased to hear from you once more.  It seems like a long time since you left me.  I have had nothing but trouble since you left.  You recollect what I told you how they would do after you was gone.  they abuse me because you went & say they will not take care of our children & do nothing but quarrel with me all the time and beat me scandalously the day before yesterday–  Oh I never thought you would give me so much trouble as I have got to bear now.  You ought not to left me in the fix I am in & all these little helpless children to take care of.  I was invited to a party to night but I could not go   I am in too much trouble to want to go to parties.  the children talk about you all the time.  I wish you could get a furlough & come to see us once more.  We want to see you worse than we ever did before.  Remember all I told you about how they would do me after you left–for they do worse than they ever did & I do not know what will become of me & my poor little children.  Oh I wish you had staid with me & not gone till I could go with you for I do nothing but grieve all the time about you.  write & tell me when you are coming.

Tell Isaac that his mother come & got his clothes   she was so sorry he went.  You need not tell me to beg any more married men to go.  I see too much trouble to try to get any more into trouble too–  Write to me & do not forget me & my children–  farewell my dear husband from your wife

So what is to be made of Martha Glover’s plea to her husband beyond communicating to him the desperate nature of her situation? First, it shows the high personal price that could be paid by slave families when a father, son, or brother entered Union service. Little wonder that Martha lamented, “Oh I wish you had staid with me.” Second, it demonstrates the continued power of slaveholders as 1863 ended, despite the blows dealt to the peculiar institution by the war. So as the year came to a close, after a year of the Emancipation Proclamation and the corrosive effect of black recruitment into the Union Army and other events, while it was down, slavery was far from out for the count. More pressure would need to be applied in 1864 and beyond to bring the peculiar institution crashing down once and for all. But much progress to this end had been made in 1863.

Sources: 1) http://www.freedmen.umd.edu/procamn.htm; 2) http://www.shapell.org/manuscript.aspx?lincoln-emancipation-proclamation-1863http://www.freedmen.umd.edu/Glover.html.

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12 Years a Slave – My Thoughts


I finally had a chance to see to see 12 Years A Slave. Like many other scholars that have opined on the film, I have a generally favorable opinion of it. Director Steve McQueen has made a reasonably faithful adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 slave narrative and one of the best commercial films in a while dealing with slavery. Of course, that is not a high hurdle, as Hollywood rarely deals in a straight fashion with the peculiar institution, preferring a sensationalist approach, like last year’s Quentin Tarantino revenge fantasy, Django Unchained (or going back in history, 1975’s potboiler Mandingo).

Hollywood is usually at its best in depicting slavery when it adapts true stories, such as Roots, the epic 1977 television miniseries, based on Alex Haley’s historical novel about his slave ancestors, or in the present case the classic slave narrative, 12 Years A Slave. McQueen’s film is actually not the first time the story of Solomon Northup has been dramaticized. In 1984, PBS showed a decent made-for-television version of the tale, entitled Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, starring Avery Brooks (best known to the public for his role as the station commander on Star Trek: Deep Space None) in the title role.

Since both the 2013 film and 1984 television version closely follow Northup’s slave narrative, the difference between them is mainly one of style. McQueen’s film is darker than Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, largely because of the more explicit depiction of slavery’s horrors that is possible in a R-rated movie compared to the self-censorship of a television program that had to satisfy broadcast standards.


Most of the violent horror in 12 Years a Slave is perpetrated by Edwin Epps, Northup’s last owner, played chillingly by Michael Fassbender, whose performance is the most striking of the film, arguably more so than Chiwetel Ejiofor‘s dignified portrayal of Solomon Northup. Fassbender’s Epps is a psychopath, making his slaves’ life a living hell, especially Patsey, who is the object of Epps’ violently possessive lust and his wife’s jealous resentment.

But what makes Michael Fassbender’s performance so impressive is not his depiction of Epps’ cruelty, which actually might seem over-the-top if he did not also manage to convey the ill-concealed fear beneath it. Transforming his portrayal from just another two-dimensional Simon Legree to a much more complicated and realistic human being, whose underlying insecurity leaks through his mask of anger and violence.

Certainly, most slaveholders were not as overtly and consistently nasty as Fassbender’s Epps, but the anxiety they also tried to hide was quite real. That is, for all their professed concern for and conceit that their slaves held them in genuine affection, slaveholders and other antebellum white Southerners were deathly afraid of the blacks in their midst, believing them to be uncivilized barbarians with a propensity for brutish violence only held in check by the discipline of slavery (which itself was based on violence, real and threatened).

I have come across this fear, again and again, in researching this blog, especially when covering the secession winter and first years of the war. For examples, please see the following editions of Civil War Emancipation: 1) February 4, 2011; 2) February 26, 2011; 3) April 14, 2011; 4) May 4, 2011; 5) May 24, 2011; 6) September 29, 2011; 7) August 10, 2012; 8) October 22, 2012. These blog entries include repeated slave revolt panics in various locations across the South during this period, sometimes resulting in horrific violence of fearful slaveholders that actually exceeded Fassbender’s Epps in its cruel ruthlessness. There also are pleas of southern citizens, begging the new Confederate government to allow militia to stay at home, because they feared slave revolts if the local troops were sent to fight the Yankee invaders.

Indeed, fear played a big role in secession. The greatest concern of white Southerners before 186o was that the end of slavery would ignite a bloody race war–Nat Turner’s revolt en masse. So they believed emancipation must be prevented at all costs, even the slightest possibility of it. Hence, when Abraham Lincoln was elected President, determined with his party to halt slavery’s spread, to many white Southerners, convinced that slavery must continue to expand to survive, it seemed Lincoln was putting slavery on the road to extinction–which could not be tolerated and prompted secession.

So, they personified Thomas Jefferson and his analogy to slavery being like holding a wolf by the ears: with slaveholders afraid to have the slaves so close, but even more afraid to let them go. Michael Fassbender captures this mentality in his performance and I greatly hope he will be nominated for a best supporting Oscar for his all too plausible interpretation of Edwin Epps.

In short, I liked 12 Years A Slave, which captured the reality of the antebellum American slavery about as well as any commercial film I have ever seen. As indicated, that puts me in good company, as academics have largely embraced the film, although some are mildly critical of certain aspects, such as Glenn David Brasher’s assertion (which I agree with) that the film depicts slaves as too passive (in McQueen’s defense so does Northup’s narrative possibly influenced by northern abolitionists). Yet my main take away from the film was Michael Fassbender’s riveting performance as Edwin Epps, portraying him as a man who unsuccessfully hid his fear and insecurity toward his slaves with monstrous abuse. While most antebellum slaveholders were not so ruthlessly psychopathic on as regular a basis as Fassbender’s Epps, the cruelty they practiced was all too real and so was the fear that underlay it, and it is indeed ironic that it was that very fear that brought about secession that started the chain of events that brought an end to the very institution it was meant to make secure.

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Kidnapping Northern Blacks into Slavery during the Civil War

I confess I have yet to see 12 Years a Slave. It is not from a lack of interest. I long ago read Solomon Northup’s book on his kidnapping and enslavement, and I have seen the Avery Brook’s made-for-television adaptation, Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, which originally appeared on PBS  in 1984. Director Steve McQueen’s theatrical adaption was finally released nationwide last Friday, and one of these days soon, like a year ago when Spielberg’s Lincoln came out, I will shell out some money and let everyone know what I think. The early signs, to judge from comments from other scholars of American slavery on Facebook, are generally favorable, but I will reserve judgment until I see the film for myself.

Yet in considering the case of Solomon Northup, it is important to realize that although his case was unusual, it was not unique. African Americans in the antebellum North shared the same vulnerability as Northup, especially after the passage of 1850’s Fugitive Slave Act, which on its face would have seemingly made it possible for any white American willing to perjure themselves to claim any African American in the North as their slave, since the black person in question would not be permitted to testify, and the compensation scheme for federal officials hearing cases of alleged fugitives was designed to favor the supposed slave owner.

It is uncertain whether any free persons of color in the North were enslaved under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Yet there is evidence that the kidnapping of African Americans from the North continued as late as Autumn 1863. On October 23, 1863, David L. Phillips, U.S. Marshal for the Southern District of Illinois sent the following letter to Abraham Lincoln (who had appointed Phillips to his post). It read:

Dear Sir,

I have Just received a letter from Hon. Chauncy I. Filley, Mayor of St Louis, enclosing an open letter from Major Easton U. S. Army, addressed to Gov. Yates, both relating to, what Seems to be, a very extensive Scheme of Kidnapping of free Negroes, and Negroes freed by the proclamation, and their removal to Kentucky through Illinois and Indiana by the Ohio and Miss. R. R. to Seymour and thence by the Jeffersonville R. R. to Louisville where they are sold for from $200. to $300, each into Slavery. It is said that the parties who are engaged in this nefarious traffic, generally, have permits from Some one in or about the Provost Marshal’s Office in St Louis.

You know the law of Illinois touching such a traffic and therefore I will say nothing as to the legal questions of the Case. That the traffic is going on to quite an extent seems beyond any reasonable question.

I enclose to you a Slip from the Chicago Tribune which I have Just Seen. It explains itself. I do not know what evidence the Tribune people have in their possession. Gov. Yates being in Washington I have taken the liberty of calling attention to the matter, knowing that you alone can, by an order to Gen. Schofield, Stop a trade which is not only legally a crime, but an outrage on humanity and an insult to the States of Illinois and Indiana.

Very truly yours

D. L. Phillips

So, with slavery on the ropes in the South in Autumn 1863, it is fascinating and chilling that there were still persons at that late date evidently kidnapping free persons of color in the North and selling them into slavery. As Kentucky was exempted from the Emancipation Proclamation, it is an understandable destination for such nefarious activity. Clearly, even in the wake of Lincoln’s proclamation and significant Confederate defeats in Summer 1863, some people were still betting on slavery’s survival, and willing to defy the federal authorities to kidnap northern blacks, much as had happened to Solomon Northup decades before.

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Groping for a New Order

Although the process of emancipation in the Civil War was far from over in Autumn 1863, on the ground in parts of the Union-occupied South there was an effort being made at that time to devise its replacement. After all, while evil and immoral, slavery was a way of organizing labor to produce valuable commodities like cotton, rice, tobacco, etc. Even if slavery died the demand for those commodities would not. Some other way of organizing labor to grow them would have to be found.

It was not just a matter of continuing the production of staple commodities. Finding a new way of organizing labor in the South was needed to deal with a long standing and growing humanitarian problem. For two-and-a-half years, slaves had either been coming under Union jurisdiction as federal troops occupied Confederate territory or as slaves escaped to Union-controlled areas in the South. These now effectively free people needed food, shelter, and other necessities. Federal authorities were limited in what they could do, both as practical matter in terms of the resources available to them and out of the fear of creating a population permanently dependent on the government. They could employ some of these “contrabands” as they were called in support of federal operations in the South, but not all or even most. Hence, the obvious answer seemed to be to utilize the remainder, as they had historically, in plantation agriculture, but how, now that slavery was effectively dead or dying in the Union-controlled South?

A variety of whites, Northerners and southern Unionists, some well meaning, other less so, proposed and experimented with new labor systems to replace. All, in one way or another, stemmed from the free labor ideology prevalent in the North before the Civil War. Free labor ideology was a group of beliefs that developed about paid labor in the northern states in opposition to the unpaid slave labor common in antebellum South. One of these beliefs was that free laborers were more efficient and productive than comparable slave laborers. Hence, some northern entrepreneurs were interested in giving free labor a try on southern plantations, convinced they could produce cotton and other staple crops humanely and more profitably than slaveholders.

The New York Times in October 1863, reported on one such experiment in plantation agriculture with free labor, conducted near New Orleans under the control of George C. Brott, a merchant of the city, part of a firm that was a prominent supplier to the Louisiana’s planters. Brott had taken over the plantation of Pierre Adolphe Rost, the Confederacy’s emissary to Spain. The Times correspondent indicated that an Irish-born overseer, named Keenan supervised the black laborers, and that despite two decades of experience in that position prior to the war he was a good choice to supervise the now free laborers because had found even under slavery, “kind … treatment was more effectual in producing a larger amount of work from the same body of men.”

The correspondent continued about Keenan:

He manages the hands very much as he did slaves, but he says that under the impulse of freedom, they produce about one-third more than they did under the old system. The negroes rise at 4 o’clock, and at daylight, which is about 5, go to the fields. At 7 o’clock one hour and a half is given for breakfast, which they sometimes take in their quarters and always cook for themselves the night before, instead of having it cooked and carried to them as before. At noon they have two hours, and stop work at sundown. This is half as much again time as they had under their old master. A weekly task is assigned to each hand — at present the work being wood-cutting, it is a cord a day — some of the hands do their week’s work in four days, and this week they finished in three. In the next two days they cut two cords a day or more, for which they get one dollar a cord on hauling it out, and they are allowed the use of the teams. You will see that they thus produce thirty-three per cent. more than their task.

Hence, the pro-Lincoln Times was eager to describe the system being used on the plantation, which mixed the slave task system of work quotas with wage labor, as a resounding success. The correspondent also described the African Americans on Brott’s plantation as paragons of workers under free labor system: industrious, honest, and frugal–not the lazy, shiftless slaves described by southern planters before the war. He wrote:

They are more contented and happy than they were under the patriarchal institution, though they work a good deal harder. They save their money for a future day, and their savings amount already to a “good bit.” The working hands will make from seventy-five to a hundred dollars apiece; so the overseer tells me, over and above their share of the crop. They support their families and take care of their aged parents. Now this does not look as though they were so utterly shiftless, does it? Again, on Sunday, after the bible had been given them, I went into the midst of the congregation, and, after saying a few words, so as to get them somewhat acquainted with me, commenced a running fire of questions on this very topic. I addressed myself solely to the men, who sat apart from the women. From the conversation that ensued, I am convinced that they do appreciate their responsibilities and duties. They will spend their money as discreetly as white laborers do, and I am inclined to think more so. They will put their savings in the Savings Bank. They will try to be temperate and industrious. Not a theft has been committed on this place, by the negroes belonging to it, Mr. Brott took it! They understand the influence they are to have on future generations, and on the policy of the country, provided they shall succeed in doing well and accumulating property. They are desirous of vindicating themselves, their race, and the system of free labor, and thus laying for their posterity the foundation of a home and a country.

It is debatable whether the New York Times correspondent was making an accurate assessment of the success of the experiment on Brott’s plantation. It also is noteworthy that while the plantation had traditionally grown sugar, Brott’s overseer, Keenan, launched his free labor venture growing cotton, which historically had been grown little in that region of Louisiana, although planters there that dabbled with the crop had proven it could be grown there successfully. The correspondent wrote:

Mr. KEENAN, the overseer, who has much experience in raising cotton, says he expects about 200 bales of cotton, which will equal the finest Red River cotton, and will be worth 400 hogsheads of sugar. It sells now in New-Orleans at between sixty and seventy cents a pound. It is certain that for years cotton will pay better than sugar, and though the crop costs more labor than it does in States further east, owing to the coco, a sort of grass that grows very fast and exhausts the soil, it requires less attention than sugar, and as many influences seem to indicate the gradual abandonment of the sugar business here, the planters of the neighborhood are watching this experiment with the most intense solicitude. It will probably cause a revolution in the labor of the country.

Hence, the correspondent’s conclusion seemed to be that cotton would be more compatible with free labor than sugar. The spread of cotton cultivation in the postwar period suggests this prediction was accurate, although there were other reasons for the spread of cotton after the Civil War occurred for other reasons in addition to its compatibility with free labor. Much else in the organization of postwar labor in the former slave states would be quite different than on Brott’s plantation in October 1863, but there and in the rest of the Union-occupied South, long before the guns fell silent, both whites and blacks were groping for a new economic order, especially as it concerned the organization of labor.

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